My sister-in-law returned to work as an administrative assistant in an architecture firm four weeks after her first son was born. Luckily, family helped care for the baby so she could go back to work; at the time, she was the breadwinner while my brother finished school.
And yet, at one month post-partum, most new moms aren’t physically or emotionally ready for work. Even if they had an uncomplicated vaginal birth, they’re just beginning to return to their body’s regular rhythms—not yet cleared for physical exercise, drained from the trauma of birth, and still in pain from cramping abdomens, stitches, and breastfeeding—all on top of the sleepless stress of a needy newborn.
At the time, it bothered me that she had to return so soon, but I didn’t think too much about it. Now that I know what it’s like to deliver a baby, nurse a baby, and have a new baby turn your life upside down, I’m furious and heartbroken to know that she and so many others have to leave their infants behind so early.
When I gave birth for the first time, my twin boys spent five long weeks in the NICU. I cried when I left them behind for just a few hours. The mother in the room next to me—already back to work at her fulltime job—cried knowing she wouldn’t see her baby again for days. I can’t imagine. Ever since then, I haven’t been able to think of parental leave in the same way.
For a while, paid maternity and paternity leave were considered just another benefit at the cost of employers or the government. The political right and left took their expected sides. Republicans fear a mandate for paid leave hurts businesses and fosters government overreach. Democrats see it as a social good that benefits entire society. Both care about people and want to do right by them.
But this election season has revealed a shift in our partisan divide over paid parental leave. Republican presidential candidate and father of four Marco Rubio has a paid leave policy, touted as the first of its kind in the Republican field. Some polls reveal that a majority in both parties support some sort of paid leave for parents (Democrats 82% and Republicans 55%).
We still see a split in the church, where progressive and social-justice-minded Christians rally for such policies, while conservative Christians rarely bring them up at all. Among fellow complementarians, I can’t help but think we fear any support for paid leave would be perceived an endorsement for mothers working outside of the home. Our discussions of women and work tend to focus (critically) on the woman advancing her career at the expense of her family, rather than the woman who has no choice but to work to support her family.
Even Christians who believe that moms should stay home to raise their children can recognize the crucial importance of such policies for those women who can’t or won’t. In fact, we who know the value of the family, of parental bonding, of rest, can be the most outspoken advocates of parental leave.
Jessica Shortall’s TED talk on parental leave brought me to tears, as she recounted the stories of women who drained their savings to stay home for 12 weeks, of premature babies sent to daycare on respirators, of mothers going back to work while bleeding, exhausted, and sore from breastfeeding. As a Christian who cares deeply about new life, women, and family, it made me want to do something for mothers and babies who are separated far too soon.
Shortall says that we have framed the discussion regarding women and paid maternity leave around their choice. In complementarian circles, we have been guilty of accusing “feminist” working mothers of being all-too-eager to escape their kids while climbing the career ladder. But such a characterization ignores the women who have no other choice, who are struggling to care for themselves and their babies while working faithfully in their jobs. Many Americans, let alone women throughout the world, do not have the luxury of choosing how long they would like to stay home with their new babies; it is a decision made for them—often by personal budgets, company policies, or a combination of both. Current federal protections through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allow eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave without pay—which can come a major cost to families.
Christian organizations span a range of policies on parental leave, paid or not. As Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported for The Washington Post, some say they would gladly offer paid leave if they could swing it fiscally. We live in a post-Genesis 3 world, where work is cursed, life is hard, and we all feel the weight of it in some capacity. Government mandated paid maternity leave won’t solve all of our problems, and it may even create some. Small businesses could suffer financially if forced to pay for leave for their employees while also hiring someone else to take their place while they’re away.
When I think about these new moms and their families, I can only conclude that paid parental leave is not a liberal or conservative issue, or an egalitarian or complementarian one. It is a human issue—a justice issue. I believe it’s time for us to think through solutions so no mother is forced to return to work before she’s ready (and so working fathers are given time to be with their children as well).
Moms who are able to spend adequate time with their children are statistically better employees, better moms, and more productive. It takes a few months to get in a routine with breastfeeding, sleeping, and knowing your babies’ rhythms—just about the time many moms return to work. As Shortall notes in her talk, we don’t really know how going back to work early affects babies and their mothers long-term. I remember a NICU nurse telling me, as I cried daily about leaving my babies behind, “You aren’t supposed to be separated from them yet.” The postpartum recovery process is designed to help the mother heal, the baby adjust to life in the world, and establish the bond between them.
In our Christian subculture, we do mothers a disservice when we reduce the issue of paid leave to whether or not a mother should be working outside the home, or even whether such policies make sense from a business standpoint. Instead, we should allow our pro-family, pro-life, pro-baby, pro-mother sentiments shape our perspectives on this issue.
Giving birth to a baby is a beautiful, life-altering thing. Our pro-life ethic should expand beyond the baby in the womb or the scared mom in the crisis pregnancy center. A lack of concern for paid leave has direct implications for our pro-life cause. What happens to an overwhelmed mom when she realizes she can’t afford to stay home with her baby in those early days, or even worse, can’t even afford day care?
Paid leave recognizes the God-designed goodness of a mother’s care, a baby’s deep needs in those early months, and the complexity of life in a fallen world. It’s time we all get behind it and put our pro-life convictions to work.